Friday, December 07, 2007

Defederate Now

The General Assembly of what is now called the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of perhaps as many as 160 or even more federations, convened several weeks ago in Nashville, although scarcely anyone paid attention or cared. The event was, to be generous, less than overwhelming, with some jokesters wondering who was more dead, whether Elvis or the federations. Let the kibbitzers have their fun. If not well, the federation world is alive and the proof is that preparations are underway for next year’s expensive confab.

Isn’t it time for persons of weight and commitment to weigh in with the suggestion that there must be a better – meaning less expensive and more effective - way of organizing American Jewish life. Federating was the rage a century ago, the notion being that in every North American Jewish shtetl with more than a handful of Jews which means that there certainly were a handful of organizations, it was imperative to establish a central coordinating agency. The idea was compelling and though there was not much coordination as each constituent group had its own machers and did its own shnorring, for quite a while the federation concept seemed to work.

We know how much the Jewish world has changed. Hospitals which in all of the larger cities were the key federation constituents now act entirely on their own, relying on third party reimbursement for operating expenses and their own fundraising for capital needs. The ranks of the Jewish poor have shrunk and they are served primarily by the welfare state. As Jews acculturated, then assimilated and then experienced in droves massive Judaic abandonment, the federation world vanished from their mindset. Why keep a costly relic alive?

Worse yet, with some exceptions federations are arid places, bereft of ideas and creativity and blessed with an abundance of bureaucratic meaninglessness. The federation world is a world of endless meetings, conference-attending, study groups that go nowhere and much more of the paraphernalia of a worn out bureaucracy. In a sad way, the concept of federation and coordination is the enemy of creativity.

The center of vitality, of ideas and experimentation, in American Jewish philanthropy is now in private foundations that have significant endowments and significant excitement. True, as often as not, those who have created these entities were motivated by ambition and ego, by the determination to do their own thing. They wanted their distinctive signature, not federation’s, to be on their philanthropy. In New York and other places where there is an abundance of Orthodox, there are voluntary networks of programs and organizations that dwarf what the federations do to assist Jews in need.

Yet, the federation world churns on, determined in this town to promote the image that vast numbers of Jews partake of its largesse. If this were only true! Of course, no ad mentions the ignoble deed of terminating basic grants to yeshivas and day schools, a decision that was made four years ago. It gives me no comfort that in the recent period Orthodox notables who counseled silence as they negotiated what they believed would be a redress of federation’s wrongful action, now tell me that I was right all along.

The case for federation is often expressed in terms of support for Israel. My view, shared by a minority at the time, is that it was a grievous miscalculation to incorporate the United Jewish Appeal into the federation ambit because it removed from the consciousness of American Jewry a primary identifying link with the Jewish state. Some rent money may have been saved and other expenses reduced. What was lost is far greater.

Fundamentally, the case for federation rests on inertia or, expressed differently, on the inability to come up with an alternative. We have not been able to figure out how to adjust our organizational structure to the contemporary American Jewish landscape, the upshot being that we continue to feed that which we have fed for a long while.

One day, the federation world will come into the 21st century, perhaps first through the closing of some of these dinosaurs where are too few Jews who care about the arrangement. Change will come, though not soon enough. For the present, we are stuck with a system that makes little sense. What is needed is a new culture or ethos to arise within the federation world promoting the notion that it is time to begin defederating. As it was an imperative to federate when the Wright brothers were fiddling around with their invention, in a world dominated by Google, Facebook and exciting technological ventures that capture the attention of nearly all younger Jews, it is imperative to go in the other direction.

It is also time to do away with the United Jewish Communities, a fancy name for an organization that does not unite and has as the main item on its agenda an annual gathering of several thousand at a cost of more than several million. UJC costs nearly $50 million to stay in business. There is no justification for this. I believe that most key federation officials know this.